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New Yorkers get a taste of Italy at the Feast of San Gennaro


By DANIEL WOOLFOLK

The Feast of San Gennaro in 2007.  Bonnie Natko via Flickr.

The Feast of San Gennaro in 2007. (Photo: Bonnie Natko/Flickr under Creative Commons license)

The famous Mulberry Street is full of games, rides and especially food this week.  There’s even a clown in a dunk tank who, if he doesn’t insult you, might insult your mother.  If your anger and aim holds you through, you can drop him into the water tank.

This is part of the 82nd annual Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy’s Mulberry Street between Canal and Houston Streets.

More than 1.5 million people are expected to show up during the 10 days of the festival, said Mort Berkowitz, who is running the event.  He estimates about 20,000 people could be at the event at any given time.

One of those people was Anne Grardi. She has white hair and a cane.  She was dancing on the sidewalk on Sunday night with some of her friends to an oldies cover band, Johnny and the Raybands. She was no Fred Astaire with that cane, but she really enjoyed the music at the festival. “We saw a nice little Spanish guy do Frank Sinatra,” she said. “He had the whole crowd standing.”

She had eaten sausage and peppers as well as zeppoles at Sofia’s on Mulberry Street and said the restaurant was surprisingly empty this year — it was standing room only last year.  And even though she noted seeing fewer people, she said she still gets to do one of her favorite festival activities: people watching.

People have been watching people since it began since it began in its first feast in 1926. It had been only a one-day event until 1996, said Chick Pallotta, who has been showing a 10-minute video explaining the history of San Gennaro at the Most Precious Blood Church.  The church has a shrine to San Gennaro,  who served as Bishop of Naples in the second cenury A.D.

And it is just as much about food as it has ever been.

Vincent “Cuzzin Vinny” Patuto sells braciole at the festival and, with his loud raspy voice, makes sure anyone within earshot of his stand knows it.  He said there were about the same amount of people as other years, but fewer people buying his braciole because of the economy.  He should know: he started attending the event about 56 years ago as an 8-year-old and started as a vendor 15 years ago.  He also sells sausages but makes his money selling the bracioles.

“We have not been declared the king of the sausage,” he said. “But we have been declared the king of the braciole.”

He said he’s OK with not being the king of the sausage.

Nick Gennaro Petronella didn’t have either, but the skinny high-school junior did have calzones, potato croquetes, mozzerella pies “and, of course, I had  zeppoles,” he said.

And he wasn’t much of a picky eater.

“I had everything I could find,” he said. “Everything was slamming.”

Julian Armstrong was a little more selective.  The seventh-grader had been there an hour and had a funnel cake, which he said was “good and sweet and fluffy and very appetizing.”

Julian wanted to try brisket, but his mom didn’t let him.

“We had enough to eat already previously before we came here,” she said.

Food wasn’t Julian’s sole objective at the festival.  He had played some of the games and had won a small white teddy bear keychain.  He wasn’t sure if he was going to try his hand with any more game tickets.

“It’s all up to my mom if she wants to buy me any,” he said with a smirk, making sure to check her reaction.

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The Feast of San Gennaro: Not like mama used to make it



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Flags and decorations overhung this year’s Feast of San Gennaro festival (Photo: Andrew Tobin)

By ANDREW TOBIN

John Labou stood idly at the southernmost end of the Little Italy neighborhood of Manhattan, and surveyed the scene. It was the last day of this year’s Feast of San Gennaro festival, and thousands of visitors filled the streets. However, very few people were stopping at his booth on the northwest corner of Canal and Mulberry Streets.

For the last 82 years, Labou’s family has sold Italian nuts, candy and paraphernalia at the event.  Since Labou inherited the business a few years ago, his profits have decline annually, and this year he lost money for the first time.

“I’m contemplating not being here next year,” he said.

Many other longtime vendors are in similar situations. They have noticed that as Little Italy and the Feast of San Gennaro have become less defined by Italian culture, demand for their traditional Italian products has diminished.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hundreds of thousands of Italians immigrated to New York. Most of them settled in southeastern Manhattan, forming Little Italy.

Labou’s grandparents emigrated from Naples as part of this movement, helping to form the Neapolitan section of the neighborhood. On Sept. 19, 1926, they and three other families on their block publicly celebrated the first Feast of San Gennaro in the United States. They opened food stands outside of their coffee shops, strung lights from the buildings, and erected a small chapel containing a statue of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, in the street.

The event quickly grew within the Neapolitan community, and eventually expanded into an 11-day celebration of Italian-American identity all over Little Italy. Over the last several decades, the festival has increasingly become a reflection of the entire city.

Mort Berkowitz, the owner of an event planning company, has produced the Feast of San Gennaro since former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wrested it from what was deemed organized crime control in 1996. He said: “The festival is designed to maintain the heritage of Italians in American. It gives people the opportunity to come back and reconnect with their roots.”

To this end, Berkowitz ensured that this year’s street fair took place under green, white and red decorations, and a lot of Italian and American flags. Italian ballads emanated from the main stage near the southwest corner of Mott and Grand Streets, and from speakers throughout the event. All other types of music were prohibited.

In addition to the numerous Italian restaurants that characterize the neighborhood, the streets were crowded with hundreds of Italian food vendors, mostly selling Italian sausages.

However, in some areas gyros, shish kebabs and piña coladas predominated. There were also fair games, rides and even a small freak show, featuring the “Alive Angel Snake Girl.”

Dr. Joseph V. Scesla, the founder and director of the Italian American Museum on the southwest corner of Grand and Mulberry Streets, said that the proliferation of these businesses reflected larger demographic trends.

Tourists and faithful paid tribute to an icon of San Gennaro. (Photo by XXXX.)

Tourists and faithful paid tribute to an icon of San Gennaro (Photo: Andrew Tobin)

Over the last several decades, the community and the borders of Little Italy have diminished. The immigrants that founded the neighborhood have died, and most of their descendants have moved away.

“At this point, there are less than a thousand Italians living in the area,” he said.

Other groups have replaced the dwindling Italian-American population, and the surrounding neighborhoods have appropriated Little Italy’s peripheral blocks.

As Berkowitz put it: “The Chinese came from the south, and the Yuppies came from the north. So Little Italy has become Very Little Italy.” He said that he has tried to preserve the historic character of the Feast of San Gennaro, but that there are no longer enough Italian booths to fill the streets.

In the absence of a local community, the event is mostly operated for and visited by tourists from in and around the city. Berkowitz estimated that one million people visited this year, down from the yearly average of one and a half million, and he said the economy was a factor. Even the Italian-Americans that are involved with the event are largely from other parts of the city.

Joe Rizzo and his wife, Linda Molinari, are from Queens. They both grew up in Italian households, and trace their lineage back to Little Italy. It had been several years since they attended the festival, but this year they took the subway into Manhattan for the last day.

They enjoyed the experience, but were disappointed by the cultural changes they saw. Rizzo said: “This neighborhood used to be rock solid Italian. It was a lot more meaningful to visit back then.”

Molinari agreed, saying, “I didn’t come down here to get a shish kebab.”

On the other hand, they both felt that the changing nature of Little Italy was part of an inevitable process. Rizzo said, “People keep coming to American for opportunity, just like our ancestors.”

Jerry Scivetti grew up in Little Italy and later moved to Queens, but he’s still an active member of the Church of the Most Precious Blood, which conducts a celebratory Mass and parades a statue of San Gennaro through the streets of Little Italy every Sept. 19.

“You don’t have to be Italian,” he said. “Everyone can come here and enjoy our traditions.”

Steps have recently been taken to ensure that Little Italy retains some of its Italian heritage. This September the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council announced the addition of Chinatown and Little Italy to the State Register as one unified Historic District. And last October, the Italian American Museum opened, aiming to educate Americans about the history of Italians in the U.S.

Scesla said, “Little Italy is getting smaller and smaller, less and less Italian, and we need to observe something here.”

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